How To Create Deep & Compelling Magic Item Backgrounds In Just 60 Seconds

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0532

A Brief Word From Johnn

Magic Items Contest – First Prize Draw Nov 7, Enter Now

The contest kicked off last week and you still have time to create a three-minute magic item and send it to me before the first draw on the evening of November 7.

Over 20 entries so far, which is great, but it also means you have a good chance of winning.

= How to Enter =

Follow the 3 Minute Magic Item template described below to create a magic item.

Email me your magic item creation: [email protected]

Multiple entries are welcome!

Format: plain text, Word, RTF or just in the body of your email are all ok.

= Prizes Up for Grabs =

Care of Gator Games (available to North Americans only due to shipping restrictions):

  • Wraith Recon Core Rulebook for use with D&D 4th Edition
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 for D&D 4th Edition
  • Monster Manual 2 for D&D 4th Edition
  • The Adamantine Arrow for Mage the Awakening
  • Player’s Guide for Aces and Eights
  • Fantasy Craft Core Rulebook from Crafty Games Gator Games.

And these prizes are available to anyone in the world:

PDFs from Open Design and Kobold Quarterly.

Copies of AstroSynthesis 3.0 from NBOS.

= How to Win =

There will be three sets of prize draws:

Nov 7, Nov 21 and Dec 5

All entries submitted before each draw will be eligible.

If you’re creating magical rewards for your campaign, why not enter them into the contest at the same time?

Note that winners are drawn at random, so don’t worry about the quality of your writing – I’ll help edit.

As always, entries will be given back to the community after the contest, so you’ll be helping your fellow GMs too.

If you have any questions, drop me a note.

Use this stat block template for your entries:

  • Awesome Name
  • Appearance
  • Benefit
  • Drawback
  • Lore
  • Twist

Thanks to Gator Games for sponsoring this contest!

Get 66% Off on PDF Subscriptions to Kobold Quarterly -Expires Nov 16

Wolfgang Baur pinged me about offering Roleplaying Tips readers 2/3 off his great magazine, Kobold Quarterly.

I’ve mentioned this publication in the newsletter before, and it’s a super deal for D&D/Pathfinder GMs, so I said, sure thanks!

Until November 16, new KQ subscribers can get 66% off a PDF subscription to Kobold Quarterly.

Just include the code “rpgtips2” in the discounts field during checkout to take advantage of the PDF subscription at half price.

Here’s the link:

(Remember, click Add to Cart, then click Checkout, then apply the code on the confirmation screen where it says Discounts. This offer is for new KQ magazine subscribers only.)

How To Create Deep & Compelling Magic Item Backgrounds In Just 60 Seconds

Give your magic item a quick history. Then use the history to tie a whole bunch of things together that will make you look like a genius.

We’ll get into genius part in a sec, but let’s first create a simple background that you can do in just 60 seconds.

To flesh out your item’s lore fast, give four questions a one line answer each:

Lore Question #1: Origin Story

Who made the item and why? (And when?)

We’re dealing with how the item came into existence. The item’s origin story. And this is always interesting stuff!

I’ve assumed the item was crafted on purpose by someone or something, but that need not be the case. A magical event might have imbued a mundane item with powers. Or, if you’re using the Legacy Item system from Assassin’s Amulet, the item might have spawned from energies absorbed by great events or NPC deeds.

Origin Ideas

Some ideas for why the item came into existence:

  • An NPC commissioned the item to be created
  • The creator was forced into it by an NPC or terrible circumstances
  • It was an accident
  • A magical event, such as a supernatural storm
  • Manifested when the gods created the world or universe
  • The gods built it for mortals as part of their plotting
  • Natural disaster + magical world, such as a landslide imbuing its earthly power into a shovel buried during the catastrophe
  • A community pours its attention, devotion or spirit into a mundane item that absorbs this energy over time

Date Stamp

Next, give the item a date stamp. While not required, this fact offers you additional context and inspiration.

For example, is the item ancient or new? If so, that’s notable and worthy of further exploration to help detail the item and your campaign.

If you have a campaign management information system, like I do for my campaigns using My Info, then a date stamp also helps you log the item into it.

Example origins:

  • Created by Servis, a humble village priest, to help protect his northern community from orcs 53 years ago. (Servis was half-orc, which caused interesting problems, but that’s another story.)
  • The goddess Cyrene bequeathed the item to her loyal guild master in CY245 to help him handle recruitment.
  • Lightning struck the item not once, but three times. Each strike imbued the item with one power. This happened yesterday, to a PC (stinking behirs!) but he doesn’t know that the item he’s been carrying since level one is now magical.
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Lore Question #2: Who Used It Last?

In most cases, owners dictate an item’s impact on the world. A magic sword offers no lore if it’s been sheathed since creation. To make history – and interesting campaign material – the blade requires an NPC to brandish it.

On a finer scale, recent ownership can inspire plot. For example, if the item was stolen, the previous owner might want it back.

Loot or Possession?

Items are either loot or possession.

Loot means the item sits somewhere waiting to be discovered. Dungeon crawls, museums and private collections are full of loot, for example.

But that’s boring. We want to know who used the item last, which means it was a possession.

So go back to that point the item was used last and jot a note about who used the item last and how the NPC became the owner.

Answer these questions as succinctly as possible to keep your creation process moving fast:

  • Who was the last owner?
  • How did they become the owner?
  • What did they use the item for, in general?
  • How did they lose the item? (If applicable.)
  • How did the item get to be at the location where the PCs can find it? (If applicable.)


  • Servis gave the item to the village’s strongest warrior, Urbat, who used it in many raids against the orcs. A foe finally defeated Urbat after many seasons and stole the item away.
  • Guild master Avram used the item in his presentations to prospective guild members for years. He kept the item’s function a secret, but was never seen without his golden torque. He handed the torque to his successor, and ever since it has become a symbol of guild leadership.
  • The PC carries the item in his backpack, ripe for a friend or foe’s detect magic.

The main reason these quick facts help you is they offer a breadcrumb trail in your campaign. Armed with NPC identities, locations and past usage rumors, you can guide the PCs to the item, add the item to a PC’s background, incorporate the item into an adventure back story and so on.

Simple details become great hooks and leads with just seconds of preparation.

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Lore Question #3: Weal

Next question offers you more grist for your campaign wheel.

Name a time when the item brought good to someone or some place, and briefly describe what happened.

Again, a one-liner suffices. More details are welcome, but if you do have extra time, keep creating past events when the item did some good instead of fleshing out details for just one event. You can always add details when working on other parts of your campaign or on-the-fly during the game. That’s where the genius part I mentioned at the beginning of this article comes in.


  • Urbat slew many orcs with the item, but a legendary moment came when he single handedly saved a farm family from a dozen orc raiders. (The village created a holiday in Urbat’s name on the date of this event after the warrior’s death.)
  • Another time, Urbat used the item to kill an orc champion in a challenge with the orc leader. Urbat’s victory gave the village a one-season reprieve until the orcs reneged.
  • Bratheon, the third guild master after Avram, used the torque to convince city counselors to stay an execution. The criminal became a guild member, and the family never forgot this kindness.
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Lore Question #4: Woe

Now we dive into the dark corners of the item’s past.

Name a time when the item brought harm to someone or some place, and briefly describe what happened.

If you have more cycles, add more bleak spots to the item’s past.

For example:

  • Urbat stumbled in combat and accidentally slew a friend.

This sent Urbat into a funk that was not lifted until he met his future wife.

  • Avram recruited Nial Crack hammer with the torque. Nial’s clan suspected foul play, and discovered evidence of the item’s magical influence. The Crack hammer clan remains a guild enemy to this day – plus they bear knowledge of the torque’s secrets.
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You Are a Genius: Weave A Complex Tapestry Through Simplification

Questions three and four give you campaign depth with little work. This brief effort makes you a genius because the item becomes a catalyst and a unifying element.

Catalyze Gameplay

By having an item do good and evil, you create an intriguing past. The contradiction will make PCs even more curious. The good and evil events generate conflicting views, stories and legends. The PCs might even think they’re hearing about two different items, thereby creating a great future group Aha! moment.

Instead of a ho-hum cardboard magic item, you have one that offers mystery, dilemmas and gameplay potential as players try to sort things out.

Further, these stories of weal and woe give players hints about the item’s powers. Bonus points if you offer clues about the existence and nature of hidden powers or surprise elements.

For your adventures and encounters, the conflicted history brings good and evil factions to the table. The bad guys hear of the item’s evil deeds and want it for their cause. The good guys hear of the item’s good deeds and want it for themselves.

Optionally, each side wants the item to prevent their foes from using it against them!

Unify Campaign Details

During design, we create a lot of details. Each bit of information tends to be its own island within your notes. This NPC over here, that place over there, this event in your adventure background, that event in your campaign history.

Tie some of these details together using the history you just created for your magic item. Each time you link game elements together, you reduce prep work and add depth to your world.

You can even use this to generate some plot. Who did what when to whom? Your item history can take disparate facts from your notes and noggin, and start building such statements in your campaign background using NPCs, places and things drawn from item history tid bits.

You connect stuff. This increases detail for what gets connected, which is great. But it also reduces the number of game elements you now need to track. It’s like a video game where smaller blobs combine into big blobs, and the big blobs get new features and properties from the merge.

For example, you need a village for your adventure. Normally, you’d put a dot on your map and declare that the village. Then you start developing the village a bit.

This time, you make the village the same one Urbat protected for all those years. Boom. A small parcel of details borrowed from an item’s history instantly gives the village great details and campaign context.

Instead of a new village and one more thing to track and design, you’ve got one place with a bunch of interesting details you can include or not, role-play or not, as you run your adventure.

Go through your item’s history and highlight all people, places and things mentioned.

Each of these nouns becomes a new entity in your campaign. Try to link to these entities as you develop your game.

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Use It for the Contest

If you like the four question deep lore method, consider giving it a whirl by crafting an entry or three for the Magic Items contest. Read the Brief Word section at the top of this newsletter for more information about how you can enter and what prizes you can win.

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Reader Tip Request

How to Blow PC Loot?

Ben M. asks:

I run a 2nd Ed. AD&D game in a dark ages setting, and the PCs have got to the point where they have a fair bit of gold.

But apart from houses, there aren’t many things for the PCs to spend their loot on.

Other than spells or the occasional potion, I don’t usually have magic items available for sale to the PCs.

So I am after suggestions for expensive (and useful) things the PCs can spend their gold on, rather than have the PCs end up as property barons.

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

NPC Family Tree Creator

From Erik Luken

I was looking for some software to create and organize family trees for major families in a campaign. I finally came across and use a program called GRAMPS.

[Comment from Johnn: this looks like potentially great software! It’s free, international and available for Unix, Windows, OSX. It seems to offer locations, people and events in addition to the family tree stuff!

I’m rubbing my chin while looking at the screenshots right now. Maybe I can call each of my Riddleport factions a “Family” and create trees for them? Hmmmmm. Thanks, Erik.]

Download the software at: Gramps

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Game Session Music Suggestion

From Abram Tamez

Really love reading your tips every week.

Thought I’d pass along some information regarding ambience. During dungeon gaming sessions, I like to put on some background music. And I have found the following album remarkably appropriate for adventuring and dungeoneering.

Trillian Green – “Metamorphoses”

Listen to the samples and tell me they set the perfect atmosphere for a campaign. It puts you in another time and another place, and you can almost hear the story unfolding.

The first track easily makes me think of heroes wandering through a dungeon. And tell me that on “Kudzu” you can’t hear the party of warriors cautiously trekking through a dense and dark forest, and suddenly coming upon a clearing where a surprised horde of goblins and orcs turn to look at them. And the chase begins!

One could just click the track number and begin reading a brief description, setting the perfect stage for an encounter.

You could even use a track number to initiate major events.

For example, the music begins when:

(Track 1) The Warriors enter a subterranean setting

(Track 2) A chase or pursuit begins

(Track 3) Things are normal and everything is going well

(Track 4) The Warriors begin a sea or water voyage

(Track 5) An exotic or strange encounter slowly building to something important or dangerous

(Track 6) The Warriors visit the tavern, blacksmith, sage or other important figure or place

(Track 7) Action and adventure: a climb, a dangerous task, a time-sensitive operation

(Track 8) Things get disturbingly mysterious

(Track 9) The Warriors enter/return to a settlement/inn

(Track 10) A battle or fight begins

(Track 11) The Warriors begin travelling a long distance

(Track 12) The Warriors enter a forest

(Track 13) The Warriors enter a settlement

Imagine how familiar the music will be when the Warriors reach the inn or settlement they are staying at between adventures.

Hearing such music could make them relax. They may even let down their guard (much to the delight of a devious GM!).

Pretty soon the GM doesn’t even have to tell the warriors what’s happening at every major turning point. The music says it all.

The album also has a 14th track not listed that is the perfect “all out monster melee” track!

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RPG Session Podcast Recommendation

From BertráM

One of your readers asked for actual play podcasts. I recommend: RPPR Episode 169 Part 1: Gen Con 2019 Wrap Up.

I got to it when I was in a similar position as him. I was new, GM’d a few games, but had the nagging feeling I might be doing something horribly wrong, something all other GMs do correctly and I don’t, because I know no other GMs in real life.

Well, turns out there wasn’t anything, and the only thing a GM needs to do is have fun and be responsible for creating fun for others.

Just keep running games and checking up on cool things other GMs do. By session five you’ll probably be pretty much in the picture.

Also, I liked the 75% rule suggested by Brad.

Screwing with the players in a way that they thank you for it is not an easy task. My only fear is that I’ll lame out and let them win anyway, accepting a bad solution and not killing them for braving a suicide mission with a half-assed plan.

[Comment from Johnn: Yup, I hear you. I face this issue with every new group I GM.

I do two things. I talk with them directly about the issue.

For example, “my style this campaign is to be an adversarial GM. I will inflict pain on PCs. But I’m fair and consistent and open to feedback anytime. Just tell me if the game is too difficult or nasty and I’ll dial it down.”

The second thing I do is create a backup parachute. I know ahead of time how I’ll bail overwhelmed PCs out. Often its allies met a few sessions ago with seed planted. “We’re scouting this area out. Have you seen anything unusual? Ok. If you ever need help, give us a shout.”

Then the PCs encounter those NPCs at random again for a short RP encounter.

With that in place now, I can bring in those NPCs back anytime to save the day without breaking immersion or belief.

In Riddle port, I’m offering cheap resurrections. But, they all generate more adventure hooks and quests. It’s working well, and players are thinking hard about not needing to rely on rez to save their PCs.]

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How to Get Your Friends to Play RPGs?

From G. L. M.

I’ve been trying to start a role-playing group with my friends but I’ve been having problems getting it started. I tried to do one before, but that one failed due to people not showing up to meetings, a lack of interest in playing their characters, and what I perceived as disrespect for me as the GM.

I have found a few friends that said they’re interested, but they aren’t showing it. I’ve been trying to schedule the first meeting for a while. I’ve tried to find out my player’s schedules, but they don’t seem that concerned about it. None of them has tried contacting me about it.

What should I do?

Thank you.

[Comment from Johnn: Hi G.L.M.,

You might offer a one-hour session with pre-made PCs. Try to gauge your friends’ personalities to see if it should be all combat or roleplaying or a combo.

That’ll give them a taste, and if they like it, they’ll be more motivated next time.

Another idea is to play a single player game. Find one friend willing, then play. Then let your friend report back to the group about what the game was like. With two people interested in playing, hopefully interest catches on.

A third option is to find some funny RPG YouTube videos and send them around. They are entertaining, so will draw your friends into watching. That’ll introduce RPGs to them and might increase their interest.

Fourth, and I’d probably do this first, call them directly and find out if there are any issues. Are they embarrassed? Does the game seem boring? What have they heard about RPG?

Fifth, try some board games. Find games with RPG elements – there are many, like Munchkin. Graduate them to full RPG once the group is used to playing games together on a schedule.

If your friends are just not interested, don’t push too hard. If possible, find gamers in your area who are passionate about RPG and game with them.

My book on how to find gamers might help: ]

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